Oakwood is a historic neighborhood just to the northeast of downtown Raleigh. It comprises about 600 houses in a variety of architectural styles, built mostly in the late 19th and early 20th century. Most have been restored to their original beauty and are well loved by their owners. Many have lovely gardens.
The neighborhood is bounded by N. Person St. on the west, the Oakwood Cemetery and Linden Ave. on the east, Franklin St. on the north, and Morson St. on the south. It is about a mile from south to north and a half mile from east to west.
The residents of Oakwood are a diverse mix of families, singles and couples, owners and renters, long-time residents and newcomers, of all ages and income levels. They tend to be well-educated and politically progressive.
The neighborhood is very tight-knit and most residents know most of the other residents. The neighborhood hosts picnics and pot-lucks throughout the year. The Oakwood Candlelight Tour is held on the second weekend of December; Oakwood decks itself in holiday finery and opens about a dozen homes to the public, and people come from all around eastern N.C. to admire. In early May, the Oakwood Garden Club holds a tea and opens several neighborhood gardens to the public.
At the time of the Civil War, what is now Oakwood was the northeastern outskirts of the small town of Raleigh. It was woods and fields, much of it owned by the Mordecai family. It became a campground for Sherman’s Union troops in April of 1865. In the 1870s, as Raleigh expanded, the Oakwood area enjoyed its first building boom, seeing the construction of about 80 houses. Some of the houses in these years were built in the Italianate style, with arched windows and bracketed cornices, or the French-inspired Second Empire style, with mansard roofs. But most houses were built in the North Carolina vernacular style, with sawnwork detail. Most were built of heart of yellow pine, with roofs of tin or wooden shingles. The streets were dirt, but lined with trees. Most people had vegetable gardens and kept livestock.
By the 1890s, Oakwood had become a fashionable suburb, with mule-drawn streetcars leading to downtown and to nearby Brookside Park, which had a pond, carousel and dance pavilion. The streets were lit with gaslights, and there were water pumps on the corners. Houses were built in the Queen Anne style, with steep slate roofs, gables and towers, turned woodwork, stained glass, and a rich palette of paint colors. The residents were a mixture of middle class folks: state officials, merchants, craftsmen, teachers, and railroad men. There were both white and black residents.
In the early 20th century, Oakwood reached its apogee, with streets paved in “Belgian blocks” of Wake County granite. Streetcars and streetlights were electrified. Small shops opened on corners throughout the neighborhood. Houses were built in the Neoclassical Revival style, with classical columns, gables shaped like Greek pediments, leaded glass windows, and elegant pastel paint colors.
After World War I, Oakwood was superseded in fashion by the Cameron Park and Hayes-Barton neighborhoods on the west and northwest sides of Raleigh. Most of Oakwood’s remaining empty lots were filled with charming but modest Craftsman-style bungalows. Many residents took in boarders to help pay the rent or mortgage.
After World War II, the automobile allowed for more far-flung suburban-style development, and Oakwood became downright unfashionable. The streetcar lines had been pulled up for scrap to help the war effort. Brookside Park closed down. Most of the wealthier families moved out and their old houses were made into apartments or rooming houses. Dilapidation set in. By 1972 this run-down neighborhood was considered of so little value that the State decided to demolish much of it to make way for the “North-South Expressway.”
But at the same time, new folks were beginning to move in and fall in love with Oakwood’s fine design and craftsmanship. They joined with some remaining old families to oppose the expressway. They formed the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood and held the first annual Candlelight Tour, to allow people to see the wonderful interiors of these homes. Oakwood was designated Raleigh’s first National Register Historic District in 1974, and its first local Historic District in 1975. Over the next several decades, the old homes were restored one-by-one to their original charm and splendor.
Now Oakwood is once again a flourishing neighborhood, and its houses are lovingly cared for. Oakwood is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. As it is a local Historic Overlay District, any new construction or alterations to the historic houses or landscape must be approved by the Raleigh Historic Development Commission.
The Special Character of the Oakwood Historic District
Developed primarily during a fifty-year period from 1880-1930, the Oakwood Historic District (designated in 1975) has the most diverse collection of architecture among Raleigh's historic districts. The neighborhood was built in the dense woods of northeast Raleigh known as "Mordecai Grove" and sold off in parcels after the Civil War. It developed incrementally, bit by bit, often lot by lot, with streets extended as needed, in contrast to Boylan Heights, which was platted in a single subdivision.
The street pattern is grid-like, but the blocks are of varying sizes and shapes. Some blocks are roughly square, while others are rectangular. This can lead to long stretches of sidewalk leading past home after home before an intersecting street is encountered. Most lots are small and narrow, especially between Bloodworth and East streets, and the houses are generally tightly spaced and often located close to the side lot lines. This dense grouping of buildings, which are also set close to the sidewalk, gives a certain intimacy and rhythm to the neighborhood.
Bloodworth and East streets provide the major north-south spine of the district, with Elm Street the third internal north-south street. Boundaries of the district are largely set by where the historic pattern associated with Oakwood's development ends: adjacent commercial areas, vacant lots, buildings that represent other development patterns distinct from Oakwood, or open space. Person Street approximates the western boundary of the district, while Oakwood Cemetery and the rear lot lines east of Linden Street establish much of the eastern boundary. A recent extension of the district to the south carries across E. Edenton Street and New Bern Avenue to just south of Morson Street. Rear lot lines north of portions of N. Boundary and E. Franklin streets describe the northern limits of the district. Primary east-west streets through the district are E. Jones, E. Lane, Oakwood, Polk, and N. Boundary. Alleyways are rare in Oakwood.
Many of the earlier streets have granite curbstones defining their edges, and the line of the curb is continuous through the narrow driveway curb cuts; the granite is simply depressed flush with the street surface to create the space for the driveway. Some of the curbs barely rise above the street as the streets have been resurfaced many times. A few of the driveway aprons are still paved with cobblestones or brick; most are concrete. Driveways themselves are most often gravel or concrete ribbon strips, squeezing beside the house to access the rear yard, and pushing the house close to the opposite side-lot line. Public sidewalks are generally concrete; a few brick walks still survive. There is typically a tree lawn between the public sidewalk and the curb where street trees are planted. Wooden electrical and telephone poles carry wires throughout the neighborhood along the streets and sometimes down alleys, supporting standard 'cobrahead' street lighting fixtures.
The rolling topography of the neighborhood is the most varied among Raleigh's historic districts. Overlaid by the grid of streets, it provides a rise and fall to the experience of moving through the area, yet another element that contributes to the sense of diversity in Oakwood. The slopes in turn provide opportunities for numerous low retaining walls, sometimes of granite or brick, that are used to demarcate property lines and level the building site. Occasionally within the flatter, less sloping sections of the district, low concrete and stone dividers set nearly flush with the ground define property lines. A heavy, largely deciduous tree canopy shelters the neighborhood, shading the streets and buildings. Front yards are primarily lawn, bordered with planting beds; landscape plantings are generally informal, and often composed of simple foundation plantings.
The compact nature of the neighborhood, along with the rolling land and the heavy tree canopy, creates an environment especially suited for the pedestrian. SidewaIks line both sides of most streets and houses huddle close to the walk, with front porches providing pause for interaction with neighbors. Recent years have seen the development of increasingly more private rear yard spaces as a counterpoint to the public front porches, with the erection of many privacy fences and outdoor decks. Two park areas no larger than one or two building lots, Vallie Henderson Garden and Oakwood Common, provide a bit of open space for pedestrians and children to enjoy. A larger open space for the neighborhood is provided by Oakwood Cemetery adjacent to the district's eastern boundary along Watauga Street.
A wide range of architectural styles and building types are nestled within this tree-shaded setting. Many of the prominent buildings within the district are of recognizable "high style" architecture. Still, befitting its heritage as Raleigh's early middle-class neighborhood (Hillsborough and Blount streets were the upper middle class addresses), most of the dwellings in Oakwood are more simple, vernacular interpretations of these styles: frame construction covered with weatherboard using standard building parts available from local millwork and lumber suppliers. Because of this early standardization of building materials, many of the details found on Oakwood houses can be seen on a variety of structures in different parts of the neighborhood. Numerous outbuildings, garages, accessory buildings and even a couple of barns dot the rear yards of properties throughout the district.
Generally speaking, the older housing stock is located within and close to the portion of the neighborhood that was part of the original 1792 city plan: south of North and Lane streets and west of East Street. This is also the area where most of the examples of "high style" architecture can be found, older structures built prior to the shift of upper middle class preference to Blount and Hillsborough streets. Here can be found examples of all the styles popularized during that long period of several decades that has been described as the "Victorian era," and which set the predominant image for the character of the district. Styles represented from this period include Colonial Revival, French Second Empire, Queen Anne, Eastlake, and Neo-classical Revival. Smaller, simpler vernacular cottages interpreting these styles are also present. A small commercial area at the intersection of Lane and Bloodworth streets continues to provide a touch of contrast to the otherwise uniformly residential character of the district.
Because the neighborhood did develop in a lot-by-lot pattern, interspersed among the earlier dwellings are later "infill" styles from the late 1910s through the early 1930s, such as the Four-square and particularly the bungalow. Following a lull during the Depression and World War II, a few 1950s Federal Housing Administration (FHA) ranch-style houses were built, designed to meet federal specifications for mortgage insurability. Then, beginning in the mid 1980s, a number of new construction projects were built under the commission's design review procedures: several infill lots, and, on the site of the former Fallon's Greenhouses operation overlooking Oakwood Cemetery, the 23-lot Oakwood Green subdivision. This pattern of random development, a hallmark of Oakwood, has lead to a surprising diversity of scale within even small areas of the district, as larger, two-story homes are flanked by one-story cottages.
Thus Oakwood, which contains Raleigh's only intact 19th-century neighborhood, is also a surprisingly diverse neighborhood of long-term change. Its evolution is painted across a broad canvas, diversity borne of architectural and topographical variety, bound into a cohesive whole through repetition of detail and style, and a consistently intimate rhythm established along continuous streetscapes of tree-sheltered sidewalks.